By Ken Krayeske • Hartford • 2:00 AM EST
P rison houses people. Human beings live behind those walls and Trinity College professor Judy Dworin has applied her dance instruction skills to help the inmates communicate with those of us on the outside.
The Judy Dworin Performance Ensemble, in collaboration with the a cappella group Women of the Cross will perform “Time In,” an exploration of the chronological experience inside and out of jail, at Central Connecticut State University's Torp Theatre on February 1 and 2 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10 each, and I can’t wait to go see it.
In honor of her work, I did a short Q&A with her.
How did Time In come about?
My performance ensemble did a performance at a conference for prison volunteers. Wally Lamb talked to one of my people, and they had a nice exchange. I wasn’t at this performance, but when I was told about it, I am interested in work that crosses disciplines, and I am interested in working with underserved populations and populations that don’t have a voice. I was interested in collaborating with Wally’s group. But they already had a dance group at York [the women’s prison facility in Niantic, CT].
I got in touch with Wally, he thought it was a great idea. He told me to talk with the librarian and organizer of all arts programs in York, a choir, dance group and poetry group. I began to think of the dance piece in larger terms, I thought of a collaboration of all four groups. I invited an a cappella women’s group. We developed a residency, and were thinking about time, specifically, how women experience time living in prison.
The idea of the project was that we would work with women from Wally’s group, the poetry group, the dance group and the choir. We went down over a six month period and worked with the women. We began to build material and women began to do writing, I told them about it, and we began to find a way to structure that into a piece about various complexities about how time is experienced.
Some of the material I gave to women of the cross, and we had simultaneous work sessions, in York and in Hartford. Then last year, we had a five day residency at York in June and all of us got together.
The piece we did at York was a collaboration of about 35 women. We performed it for inmates in a big gym in prison. Obviously, after we performed it with the women, we said we would take it outside. I worked with the Women of the Cross and the Ensemble to communicate it to the outside world.
Where did you perform it?
We did that piece at Charter Oak Cultural Center in November. It was amazing. All of these performances have been among the most amazing I have ever experienced in my work.
There have been standing ovations and people staying for talkbacks for 45 minutes to an hour after the show, with an energized dialogue. There was an audience of children of the incarcerated, and they recognize their parents’ voices.
I heard moving comments by one of the daughters who said her mother tried to explain it, but she had never been able to understand it until that evening. She was in tears, she never realized how much it had changed her and how it changed her mom.
My company is based on the fact that art can make a difference. This was difference it made not only to me, to the women, but to the audiences. It has its own life, this piece, it almost feels like we are following where it goes next.
What was the strangest part about walking into prison?
I think that we all have these built in expectations that we don’t know about. I didn’t know what it would be like to walk into a prison until I went in. the locked doors, who would these women be, and I just found that as layer after layer shed away, I saw these women as people who were complex and were there for complicated reasons. They came from backgrounds of abuse or domestic violence and it made me think about it in a different way.
What kind of a different way?
What is justice? What is the best form of punishment? I don’t know that I had thought about people going to prison to heal. That’s what happened. Very often, these women were people who made bad choices. The way back from those choices is a rehabilitative one.
I don’t know that I thought about it very much before I was placed in the middle of it. it just became pretty apparent to me that part of why this work made such a difference, giving women an outlet to express themselves about things they haven’t had much of an opportunity to express in their lives. And that is probably part of the problem. All of us need an outlet, and it was transformative.
It reaffirmed to me how much of a difference it makes, and it made me feel that it is important for the system to be inclusive of this and make it a real priority.
How do you relate this to living in the American security state?
Our culture has been repressed and controlled in ways that are not healthy for us as human beings, all along. Living in a post-9/11 world maybe brings that forward in starker ways and makes everybody think about it more.
If you go to an airport, the process one goes through, all the ways our thinking and the thinking of our culture ahs changed and become reactive. Artists are critical all the time, artists are more critical in time of repression, sometimes it takes more courage to speak out in those situations.
I think our country has been silenced in sort of dangerous ways. It is important in these ways to keep speaking out even when you don’t think it is going to make a difference. I think it does make a difference.
I think that it made a huge difference in this case. It made a difference that these women couldn’t walk out of prison after this. There are still there. But their quality of life changed during this time. It is important for people in prison to find that meaningful quality of life and expression.
Did you identify with any of the women in prison?
The crimes you encounter in prison are murder, drug use, larceny, whatever. I didn’t talk about the crimes. That wasn’t the basis of our discussion. I dealt with the women as they are in this present moment. I talked to women who said before I got here I thought everybody in prison was a bad person.
I don’t know I would have said that, I don’t know that I would be comfortable talking to someone who killed someone. That didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t possible to put up those kind of boundaries. There was plenty of meeting ground, we were meeting as people in this situation creating something, had a strong bond.
How did it feel when you could leave?
That was a known thing when we started. That felt pulling, and it still feels pulling in the sense when I think of how long some of the women I know there are going to be staying there, it feels very sad to me and it also feels like it is hard for me to think that some of the women will benefit from the amount of time they are supposed to stay there.
The reconsideration of some of these sentences might be beneficial because I think what affected me more than leaving on a daily basis. One time we sat around a table people talked about time they had served and time they had left, and that was sad to me.
We’re going back there in May to do the second phase of the residence. I want to continue to make a difference with these women. This is the strongest way I want to keep working and helping, in the way that Wally is and the way other people are doing work in prisons. I think this is really important.